Student-Centered Foreign Language Teaching






Foundations of Foreign Language Teaching and Learning:


Psychological Aspects )


Leon A. James

Center for Comparative Psycholinguistics

University of Illinois, Urbana


(In Eberhard Reichmann (Ed.), The Teaching of German:  Problems and Methods. Published by the National Carl Schurz Association Teaching Aid Project (Winchell Company, Philadelphia), 1970. Part II, Chapter 1.]


The relationship between the practitioner and the researcher is usually a difficult one, and it is rendered even more problematic in this instance -- between the FL teacher and the psychologist or linguist -- because of the tenuous contribution which learning theory and linguistics have been able so far to make to the practical concerns of the L teacher. Ernest Hilgard, in the article reprinted here, is not alone among the eminent experts in learning theory to caution that the contributions which psychological research has been able to make so far to the instruction process has not been overwhelming; the remarks of the eminent linguists, Noam Chomsky, also reproduced here, are not only cautionary about this relationship, but are quite skeptical and pessimistic with respect to the ultimate contribution which psychologists and linguists can make to the educational process of L teaching. John Carrol, the well-known educational psychologist, is understandably more optimistic, but the review of the literature he presents only leads to the unsatisfactory conclusion that all this body of research is "inconclusive.š


             To the L teacher who seeks not only guidance from the šexpertš for innovative approaches to teaching but also legitimacy from the academic researcher and theoretician for the practical procedures that he is following, such a state of affairs can be confusing and discouraging. And indeed it is. But the issue of responsibility on both sides must clearly be realized and kept in mind. The researcher has the responsibility to indicate the limitations of the extrapolation process from laboratory to classroom and must not claim for his research and theory the power of generalization and applicability they do not in fact possess. The teacher and educational administrator have the responsibility of justifying their instructional methods and procedures on their sole merit, in terms of their consequences, and not in terms of their congruity or affinity with a particular theory. I think it has been too often the case in the past that techniques, methods, approaches, procedures of L teaching have been followed and legitimized by an appeal to the validity of particular psychological theories. This has been the case with the debate on the AL „habit structureš approach versus the codeųlearning or ruleųlearning approach. In retrospect it appears quite clear that all this effort and energy in polemics and research has been an idle activity. We are no further ahead today than we were 15 to 20 years ago.


              The FL teaching enterprise is currently in the grips of a great crisis. Although the number of students at the elementary and secondary levels who are enrolled in a FL course has consistently risen and is now quickly approaching the saturation point (at the secondary level), the results of this massive educational effort in FL teaching have been quite disappointing: only a very small fraction of the student body ever achieves meaningful levels of skill in the use of a second language and the majority of students view their FL experience as disappointing: and largely useless.1 This is indeed a sad state of affairs and it is imperative that we understand why we are where we are and what we can do about it.


                 There are two principal causes, it seems to me, behind our present dilemma, and there are two solutions that, I think, will extirpate us from this crisis. I shall discuss the two causes under the heading „ Unifunctionalism within mass education,š and the two solutions under „Multiųfunctionalism within compensatory education.


Unifunctionalism within Mass Education

                 Prior to the 1940‚s, the FL curriculum was characterized by a unifunctionalism of both method and goals: to teach a reading ability through the explicit learning of grammar rules. In the 1940‚s, largely as a result of the war effort, there developed a set of procedures initiated in intensive L courses, which later became known as the „New Keyš approach (or AL approach) as practiced in the school curriculum. It is important to realize that the audio lingual method as it came to be practiced in the schools differed in two essential respects from the war time intensive courses from which the AL method arose: (1) the AL method was extended to mass education where the teacherųstudent ratio jumped by a factor of 10 to 20 or more; (2) the actual (as opposed to theoretical or fictitious) goals of the AL method changed from „the ability to use oral language in a realistic communicative contextš to „the ability to obtain a passing grade on a discreet  point L test.š It is these two characteristics of the AL method, as it departed from the intensive L course, that is the causes of the present crisis in the FL curriculum.


                 The first of these characteristics disregards two very basic facts, which the intensive course was able to take into account through selection and the small studentųteacher ratio (as well as massed vs. distributed practice ųų but that is another issue, see footnote 1). These two facts are: (a) not everyone has either the interest or the aptitude to acquire a speaking knowledge of a second language within the limited time requirements available in school; and (b) even where there is interest and aptitude, there are not sufficient opportunities for practice available in the classroom situation to develop meaningful communicative competence.


                 The second characteristic which the AL method adopted in contradistinction to the intensive L course, namely the use of discreetųpoint tests, had the unfortunate consequence of dislocating the relationship between what was taught and what was the ultimate purpose of learning: a student who did well on the L test did not necessarily have a comparable ability in the use of the L in a communicative context.


                 The results of these two characteristics of the AL method are thus the causes of the present crisis: generations of students were, and are still being, exposed to FL teaching procedures which are unsuited for their interest and aptitude, and whatever they do learn as a result of this exposure, is clearly unsatisfactory from the teacher‚s point of view who is, after all, interested in getting them to be able to use the language in some communicative sense.


                 Multiųfunctionalism within Compensatory Education The two requirements that will rectify the present unsatis–factory situation are clearly these: (1) to change the unifunctional character of the current FL curriculum in the direction of greater diversification of goals; and (2) to change the current evaluation procedures away from the use of discreetųpoint L tests and towards the introduction of tests of communicative competence or L use.


                 It is important to clarify just what is involved in these two propositions. „Diversification of goalsš refers to the curriculum not the course. In fact, at the course level, greater rather than less specialization is indicated. A course whose goal is to „teach a speaking and a reading knowledgeš of language is both too vague and too broad to be successful. It is significant that the highly successful intensive L courses of the Foreign Service Institute state their goals in terms of the ability to engage in specific communicative acts rather than in terms of „knowledgeš (e.g. to carry out a conversation with a native speaker on the technical subject specified, or to act as an interpreter in a war zone village, etc.). This is an essential requirement since experience shows that ability in one communicative context does not readily and automatically carry over to another context. Given limited time, interest, and aptitude, the training situation, to be effective) must be geared to the development of specific and limited goals stated in terms relevant to the real life situation in which the acquired ability will be used. Furthermore, under conditions of mass education, there will be maximum variability in terms of interest, aptitude and student willingness to spend time in study. This means that the overall curriculum available to them must be made up of a large number of diverse courses each of which will have a very limited and specialized goal. The evaluation of student progress and achievement must be made in terms of their ability to function within a range of such communicative acts. Each student will determine for himself, with the aid of proper counseling from the FL teacher, the range and extent of goals he is to study, taking into account his interests, his aptitude, the time he has available for study, the educational requirements he is to meet, the available resources of his school, and so on. This is what is involved in the concept of „individuatedš or „compensatoryš education in their realistic sense; that is, not a 1 to 1 teacherųstudent ratio (that is impossible), but a responsiveness of the system to the individual needs of students.


How realistic is the solution offered here? The introduction of compensatory education with a diversified curriculum made up of courses with a limited communicative objective no doubt presents many difficult problems, many of which have not as yet been solved, but it seems to me that in part, at least, it can be implemented immediately. We have the technology and the know-how: we can measure FL aptitude on a routine basis; we are aware of what some of the motivational and attitudinal factors are that affect second L learning; we have made great strides in applied linguistics and have sophisticated audioųvisual aids at our disposal; we have learned a great deal about instructional programming and teaching devices; we have field resources available in many instances (travel

abroad programs, L camps, summer L courses), and so on. This know-how will go a long way if supplemented by willingness, imag–ination, and courage on the part of the individual teacher, the supporting administrative staff, and the larger community. Compen–satory education is within our grasp. Will we have the courage to try it out? On it hinges the future of the FL teaching enterprise.


The Teacher‚s Role


In his article, Ernest Hilgard discusses certain important matters, which point the way towards the teacher‚s role in improving FL instruction. As I pointed out early in this Introduction, basic or „pureš research is of limited value in this respect, and Hilgard discusses the „technologicalš steps that must precede „inventionš and „strategies of innovation.š It would be a grave mistake to conclude that because traditional experimental methods in psychology have failed that therefore the teacher has no other recourse but to revert to impressionistic, authoritative, and opinionated positions. Experience, rather than experiment, is the most valuable resource the teacher has, granted, but it must be supplemented by systematic observation procedures borrowed from the scientific and technological disciplines. The teacher must use available techniques that are helpful to his goals (e.g. aptitude tests, attitude questionnaires), discard those that are a liability (e.g. discreetųpoint L tests that are too broad and artificial to be indicative of ability to use L), and invent new techniques he needs (e.g. assessing communicative competence in specific contexts). The future of effective FL teaching does not rest with developments in linguistics and psychology. It rests, rather, with the teachers s increased knowųhow to expose the student to the set of conditions that is just right for him.




            1This conclusion is justified and documented in James‚s, L. A. Foreign Language Learning:  A Psycholinguistic Analysis.  Rowley, Mass.:  Newbury House Publishers, 1970.  The arguments presented in this introduction are further developed and elaborated there.


            2Discreet-point tests are predicated upon the assumption that knowledge of  L consists of a set of discreet facts at various levels (e.g. phonological, syntactic, lexical) and that this knowledge can be assessed by bringing together in a test a sample of these facts and determining how many of these facts the student knows.


            3This is true even for the teacher who would settle for a „reading knowledge.š  Evidence indicates that few students are sufficiently motivated and capable to continue reading in the FL independently of course requirements.


            4The inadequacies of the present FL curriculum are not to viewed as an indication of a great weakness in our ability to teach L per se.  The technology of L teaching is at an advanced stage:  under best conditions we can state in advance the number of hours required to teach any L (this is usually in the order of several hundred hours Ų shorter by a factor of up to 10 when compared to the time required to learn the first L).  The difficulty, then, is the adaptation of this technology to the school situation.